Ukrainian soldiers, fresh from a declared victory, had little time to chat as they continued their “mopping-up” operation in Maryinka last week.
Visibly nervous, their blackened faces barely registered above the newly constructed sandbag huts as they dispatched The Independent back along the main prospect, past the empty munition shells, artillery craters, the fallen trees and two Ukrainian tanks.
Wednesday’s battle, which was focused on Maryinka and two other Donetsk suburbs, was the most serious violence seen in the region for some time. The mass use of heavy artillery and multiple rocket systems in the fighting is the most-blatant indication of the death of February’s Minsk ceasefire, which required both sides to withdraw heavy weapons from the front line.
Each blamed the other for the outbreak of fighting last week, but by Thursday evening a reasonably clear picture of what happened had emerged.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Just after 4am on Wednesday, Russian-backed forces launched an offensive on Ukrainian lines, forcing them to abandon their final checkpoint position. By the evening, the Ukrainians had regained operational control of the town and that checkpoint.
Both sides also claimed significant losses had been caused to the enemy. The rebels claimed the death of 400 Ukrainian troops, and said 14 of their own were killed and a further 30-40 seriously injured. Meanwhile, Andriy Lysenko, an official spokesman for the Ukrainian side, said government military losses were just five, compared to 80 enemy deaths.
The Independent was not in a position to verify rebel losses. However, Valery Kolesnikov, a volunteer working in close contact with government forces in Maryinka, estimated 14 Ukrainian military and two civilian deaths, with 36 seriously injured.
UN political chief Jeffrey Feltman, on Friday said that 28 people, including nine civilians, were killed in the clashes. He urged both sides to respect the ceasefire.
“We are either looking at a return to a deepening, intractable conflict or a momentary upsurge in parts of the conflict zone,” Mr Feltman said. “We cannot afford either.”
The few hundred civilians who had stayed behind in Maryinka spoke of their distress at Wednesday’s fighting, which, they said, had been the worst they had experienced in the last 12 months.
While a ceasefire of sorts was implemented by about 5pm local time, the terror did not end. One man, Yuri, who refused to give his surname, described humiliating and frightening treatment at the hands of Ukrainian soldiers the following morning.
“They forced me to the floor, and made me undress to my underpants,” he said.
His neighbour, Elena Vlasova, 45, warns visitors who enter her house: “Don’t take your shoes off, there’s glass everywhere.”
Her living room is covered in mortar shrapnel, wood and glass. Her dog died in the attack, and she believes only the thickness of one wall saved her from injury. Visibly shaken, Ms Vlasova says it was the second time that fighting had come to her home.
“I had to abandon another flat last June”, she says.
The consequences of that 12 June battle, when Ukraine re-established control of Mayrinka, live on to this day. Locals have been without gas in the year since then, and while Ukrainian authorities blame rebel authorities for getting in the way of repairs, not all are convinced by this explanation. “Where there is a will, there is a way,” says Ms Vlasova.
Maryinka’s residents complain about being left to their fate by a government that claims to represent them, abandoned in a buffer zone which is of interest to neither side. They say local authorities rarely visit, and point to the three shops that remain open in the town. None are well stocked, and the prices of some goods has become prohibitive, as bureaucratic restrictions at the official Ukrainian border and customs points on the front line lead traders to up prices.
Many of those who have stayed in Mayrinka are locked in a vicious circle: too poor to leave, and too poor to stay.
“We are at our wits end and I can’t sit through another winter without gas,” says pensioner Liudmila Petrovna, 71.
She hopes the appearance of a Western journalist might change things.
“Can you get the message through?” she pleads.
Those who wanted to leave were being offered transport and temporary accommodation. Yet still some remained committed to staying despite the obvious danger.
With a smile that revealed her row of gold teeth, retired Ukrainian-language teacher Lidia Ivanova, 75, was defiant: “Why should I be forced to from my home? I’m not leaving because someone somewhere couldn’t agree on a split of power and money.”Reuse content